Back to the Rack

Bill Starr

Iso Programs for All Part 7
Last month I presented two sample programs that gave priority to isotonic-isometric exercises and used free-weight movements as adjuncts to the rack work. There was a routine for Olympic weightlifters and another for competitive powerlifters. Those programs are most effectively used off-season, during breaks from important competitions, although several York lifters used them in-season and tested out at the meets. Typically, you do them for six to eight weeks, then shift the emphasis back to more freeweight work, putting isos in a supplemental role. The two programs I outline this month are for athletes who’re involved in a competitive sport and are somewhat advanced in strength training and for those who train primarily for strength fitness. The former group includes athletes who participate in football, wrestling, rugby, lacrosse and the throwing events in track plus all those strongman and -woman events that have become so popular. Of course, any athlete can benefit from an iso program. Swimmers at Indiana University, runners from Villanova and rowers from the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia were among the first to show significant strength improvement while using the new system of strength training in the early ’60s. The latter group consists of younger and older weight trainers who want to maintain a high level of strength or improve some particular lift but have no intention of entering any competition. They just like the idea of being strong.

Isotonic-Isometric Program for Strength Athletes
This is a five-days-a-week routine, but you can modify it to fit your schedule. You do the iso work in the rack on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and use the free weights on Tuesday and Thursday.
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Three incline-press positions, the steeper the better: start, eye level and finish. If you don’t have an incline bench, substitute overhead presses for the same three positions. Three pulling positions using a clean grip: start, just below the knees and high top pull. The final position is where you finish your pull for a power clean, right at the bottom of your breastbone, and climb high on your toes before locking into the top pins. Three back-squat positions: deep bottom (try to set yourself lower than you go when you squat), midpoint and three-quarters of the way up. Calf raises.


Power cleans: five sets of five.

but you have to do them with intensity. Calf raises. Good mornings: four sets of 10. middle and finish. Two front-squat positions: deep bottom and middle. so I always did good mornings and worked them hard. Three pulling positions using a snatch or wider grip: slightly below the starting point. but I prefer just taking a bit off the top end. The only one you need to push to limit is the good mornings—and that’s to ensure that your lower back stays proportionately as strong as the other parts of your back. If you can’t do front squats. Three back-squat positions: ultradeep. Since you’re building pure strength with the iso workouts. which should be your main purpose. Thursday    High pulls. Whenever I did several weeks of concentrated isos. work up to 300 or 305 at most. midpoint and three-quarters of the way up. Let’s say you’re able to handle 325 for five on the bench press. Inclines: five sets of five Front squats: two sets of five followed by three sets of three. My rule of thumb is to select a weight for my final set that I could use for one or two more reps if I . Lifting slightly lighter weights will enable you to pay closer attention to your technique. On all the other exercises use moderate poundages. right at the knees and a shrug. and make sure that your final sets aren’t so light that you can use sloppy form and still make all the reps. It’s easy to lose concentration and hurry through your routine because you know you can handle the weights easily enough. you can do almost-straight-legged deadliftsa. If you did inclines on Monday. staying flatfooted. substitute those same two positions for back squats. do standing presses.   Back squats: five sets of five. Which brings up the question: How heavy is moderate? Some people use percentages. Bench presses: five sets of five. Should you have an aversion to good mornings. If you substituted overheads for inclines on Monday. I felt my lumbars were lagging behind a bit. do back squats: five sets of five. Attempt to perform each rep perfectly. Calf raises. your objective on the free-weight days is to hone your form on the selected exercises. you can do either benches or overheads at this workout. Three press positions: start. if you don’t do front squats. Again. stiff-legged deadlifts-instead. just above the knees and at the bellybutton. Wednesday     Three bench press positions: start. but that won’t aid your cause.k. eye level and four inches under lockout. alternating clean and snatch grips every other week: five sets of five. While giving the isos precedence.a. Friday     Three pulling positions using a clean grip: midshin.

and that works just as well. Three is sufficient. The test day is helpful in that it lets you handle some heavier weights. but I’ve seen athletes do good mornings and even leg curls using isometrics. Some trainees like to do inclines rather than flat-bench presses. Three positions on the bench press: start. Now. For example. but you can give them priority by moving them to the front of the workout and making sure that you’re working to absolute max on your isometric holds. You can delete some and add others to suit your individual interests. Keep in mind that almost any exercise that can be done with free weights can be duplicated in the power rack. which means you can check out whether your form is improving and you have gained strength on the various movements. Isotonic-Isometric Program for General Strength Fitness This one is set up the same way as the previous routine: five days a week. you must give preference to the lifts that made the least improvement. squat and bench press. When you resume your isos the following week. just below the knees and top high pull. So instead of doing inclines and overhead presses in the rack that next week.wanted to. but the lighter weight will make it much easier to concentrate on the small form points. Monday      Three pulling positions using a clean grip: start. I don’t mean that you should do more positions for the weakest bodyparts. In some cases the weight you use at the various positions may not be as much as it could be. Two curl positions: middle and finish. Calf raises. two doing free-weight exercises. sometimes you don’t make progress on a particular exercise simply because you’re not working it frequently enough. You’ll still have to put in plenty of effort. Also. Remember that the goal is always to find your weak points and make them stronger. In that case you lock the bar into the top pins and hold it for a 12-count without an all-out effort. I’m using a few different exercises in this program. Isos always seem to boost one or two lifts more than others. do three bench press positions at every iso session and see if that makes a difference. that hold has to make your body shudder. Every three or four weeks skip the Friday iso session and test out on the big three on Saturday: power clean. It may take some imagination. I’ll comment more on weight selection for the isos later on. I believe inclines are more beneficial for athletes than flat-bench presses. Tuesday   Back squats: five sets of five Good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts: four sets of 10. three days doing isos. you find on your test day that your bench press hasn’t gone up at all. but now I want to outline a program for those who are primarily interested in strength fitness. In fact. Two back-squat positions: deep bottom and just below parallel. middle and just below lockout. It should. For those to be effective. .

you may want to stick with isos throughout the week and go heavy on all the lifts on Satuarday. They’re not cast in stone. but I’ll state it again: These programs are models. Two squat positions: ultradeep bottom and a tad above parallel. Three back-squat positions: deep bottom. Calf raises. Note your weaker lifts and lean on them hard when you go back to the isos. If you work those three positions diligently. I’ve mentioned this before. middle and finish. eye level and just short of lockout. Three incline-press position: start. do five sets of three. Perhaps you’d rather use free weights three times a week and work in the rack only twice. If you can do front squats. In fact. eye level and just short of lockout. As with the other program. middle and finish. high on your toes. You might also see if your curling strength has improved. middle and finish. it’s counterproductive to do extra work for any bodypart. I know it’s a cliché. and I try to avoid using them. there are some rules that should be adhered to if you want to make progress. For example. Wednesday      Three bent-over-row positions: start. back. Three pressing positions: start. right at parallel and three-quarters of the way up. doing additional positions won’t make them stronger. but in this case it gets the point across. midthigh and finish. As for whether you should do isos often or seldom. then totaled out on the three Olympic lifts—press. such . Calf raises. Bench presses: five sets of five. squats and pulls in the rack during the week. For back squats stay with five sets of five. Three curl positions: start. Three pushdown positions: start. Shrugs: five sets of five Friday      Three pulling positions: below starting position. come in on Saturday and go to limit on the primary exercises. snatch and clean and jerk—on Saturday. Only do three positions for the major muscle groups: shoulder girdle. That’s how the original program was designed and how Louis Riecke and Bill March trained with great success in the early ’60s. Thursday    Alternate incline presses with overhead presses: two sets of five and then three sets of three. Whatever floats your boat. They did overhead presses. skip the Friday workout every so often. Use the routines as listed or modify them to fit what you’re trying to accomplish. Advanced strength athletes can get away with working three or four more positions for the smaller groups. and hips and legs.

biceps and triceps. crunches or leg raises for the abs. but the majority of trainees are better off sticking with nine positions total—and never more than 12. do the iso. When you thoroughly warm up muscle groups. After you finish warming up. it really helps to have a training partner when you do isos. A little trick to aid in that process is to place a bench or chair next to the ends of the bar and stack the weights on it. move through the iso workout with purpose. You don’t have to follow the exact order of the positions as I listed them in the sample routines. Along the same line of common sense. some trainees find that they can exert the most effort at the third position for a certain bodypart. they respond much more favorably to any form of exercise. In that regard. they can go directly to the work set. Next. make sure those bodyparts are adequately prepared for the stress ahead. they can stop and make the necessary adjustments before locking into the isometric hold. On the subject of workout time. with your second weakest second and strongest third. If everything isn’t right. if they’re confident that they know what they’re trying to accomplish. it’s well worth it. such as a set of power cleans before you pull. grab a light weight and work the muscles of the first group you plan to hit in the rack. the more proficient you’ll become. No breaks at all. At the second position for that bodypart they can either follow the same procedure and do two warmup sets or. The preparatory tap or taps give lifters a feel for the work weight and make sure their mechanics are correct. Warm muscles are also less prone to injury. set up for your first position. While that seems logical. That saves time and energy and will enable you to complete the workout much faster. do something for your abs and lumbars. tapping the top pins each time but not holding the bar against them for a count. the more you practice the system. inclines or overhead presses. Do situps. On the first position of a series at the start of the workout they do three sets rather than just one: the first with a light calves. Finally. the second with a moderate poundage and the third as a heavy work set. which flush blood into your lower back in a hurry. There they can tap the top pins once or twice prior to the isometric contraction or lock in on the first rep. Two training mates are even better to help you with unloading and reloading and moving the pins and bar to the next position. free-hand squats before you squat or dumbbell front and lateral raises before you do benches. You may want to give your weakest position priority and move it up front. Here’s a variation that I’ve found helps athletes learn how to put forth greater effort on the money reps. unload. and that’s even more the case with isotonic-isometrics because the sets are so concentrated and short in duration. You’ll discover that you don’t need them and that you achieve greater results when you move through the positions quickly. Obviously. Do hyperextensions. move the bar to the next position. but when you’re in the learning stage. Be sure to warm up well before going to the rack. They do three reps on the first and second sets. On the work set they can go right to the iso hold on the first rep or tap the pins once or twice before locking it into an isometric contraction for a count of eight to 12. That’s partly because . reload and quickly perform the isotonic-isometric exercise—and on to the next until you’ve completed your session. Doing extra sets at each position does make the workout longer. Get your core body temperature up by doing calisthenics or riding an exercise bike for five to 10 minutes. before you move on to the second and third series of positions.

I can’t overstress that point: The only way to contract your muscles maximally and hold them in that state of extreme tension for the desired count is to keep your body rigid throughout the iso hold. and then start applying tension to the bar. however. I’ve trained on some on which the holes were set six inches apart. The Zen of strength training. Think in terms of how you’d go about pushing a car. Push your feet down into the floor. and I agree if the athlete is experienced in this system of training. I’ve found that those in the process of learn isotonic-isometric technique benefit more by doing the longer count. but by standing on boards or plates. the easier the isotonic portion of the movement will be. Now lock into that extreme contraction for a count of eight to 12. Not all power racks have holes closer together. don’t jam it against the top pins. you’re not going to gain any strength from doing isos on it. you’ll find this unique system of strength work to be extremely productive. While you’re in the middle of that surreal experience. glutes. the closer you can set them to one another. When they do that. So learn to fix the bar in the middle of the pins. Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. When moving the bar isotonically upward. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. it’s still a good idea to switch the order around regularly. Speaking of pins. Some trainees believe that a five-to-six-second contraction is sufficient to build strength. In that case do the weakest position last.they’re more warmed up and partly because they’re getting in the groove after the two previous sets. You’d never get it to move by jamming against it. make sure your body position is correct. away from the railings. In the beginning you’ll work . and make sure your body mechanics are correct before commencing the isometric hold. you’d set it in motion by applying pressure and increasing it steadily until the car began to move. back. Rather. Over the course of four or five seconds you should increase the tension until you’re pushing or pulling to the absolute max. hips. shoulders and arms almost to the point of cramping. Weighty Matters Whether you decide to use just a few isotonic-isometric positions as supplements to your regular routine or want to give the rack work priority for six to eight weeks. Keep in mind that if you’re not positioning your body exactly as you do when you perform an exercise with free weights. and stay in that state of tightness until you reach your goal of eight to 12 seconds. Certainly not ideal. And the best way to achieve that is to start from a solid base. The same idea applies to the isotonic-isometric contraction. their mechanics are not correct—usually they’re leaning too far backward or forward. If all the positions are about equal. Fix the bar against the top pins deliberately. A common error many beginners make is to use the railings of the rack to help control and balance the bar when they lock into the isometric hold. focus on the muscle groups you’re working and visualize them growing stronger as the count progresses. consciously contract your legs. I was still able to lean into the isometric contractions for the required count.

You also want to remember to write down what you do at each iso session. After an iso session find a way to decompress your back. Stop. Keep in mind that hold time is more important than the amount of weight used in the isotonic-isometric system. and it really helped prepare us for our next session. take off some plates. and if you can easily handle a certain poundage for 12 seconds and you know you could hold it even longer. So if you’re unable to hold the iso contraction for a minimum of eight seconds. stay with that same weight until you can hold it for 12. It wasn’t comfortable by any means. Should you barely hold a contraction for eight seconds. At the York Barbell Club the lifters decompressed their backs by hanging upside down from a chinning bar with their feet fastened to the bar with straps. Likewise. when the weight you select is clearly too light. as are inversion beds. Overhead work. and it’s very beneficial to your health and long-term progress to relieve at least some of that strain.through lots of trial and error until you learn your strong and weak positions. and do it again. Years later you can look at your training journal and use the information again—maybe not for yourself but for someone you’re coaching. If you use warmup sets. Record the hole positions. That will be better than not doing anything at all to decompress your spine. replace the bar on the lower pins and add weight. When I first dangled upside down. squats and pulls all put a tremendous amount of stress on your spine. which tilt upward and save you the trouble of finding a high chinning bar. Most of us decompressed in that manner after every heavy workout. . Five minutes later I could touch the concrete. Let’s say you start into a work set and instantly realize that the weight is too heavy for you to hold for the minimum count. the amount of weight handled and how long you held the contraction. note them as well. my fingers would be six inches from the floor. This data will be extremely valuable in the long run. strap onto a chinning bar and coax your back muscles to relax as you hang. Inversion boots are great and available again. In the event that it’s not possible for you to hang upside down. and then add weight. use less weight. but it got the job done. you need to increase the resistance.

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